360 Degrees

SUSANNA MÄLKKI, who makes her Met debut this month conducting L’Amour de Loin, thrives on her job’s myriad responsibilities.
by Jessica Duchen. 

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Photograph by Simon Fowler
“Saariaho’s writing is very good and very clear. There are no ‘problems’ to solve,” says Mälkki.

ON A SUNNY DAY IN PARIS her adopted home, Susanna Mälkki is catching up on her paperwork. The Finnish conductor, former music director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, is calm, discreet and supremely well organized—rather as she is on the podium, where she places those qualities at the service of making magic out of the music. 

Mälkki seems, in certain ways, a model of classic assertiveness. With considered clarity, she can elicit the effects she wants in rehearsal by stating even challenging matters in a straightforward way, often achieving magnificent results. Now that she is forty-seven, her artistry is being recognized with some significant new appointments: this fall she became principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, in the city where she grew up; and she has been named principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic beginning in fall 2017.

In another career landmark, she is conducting at the Met for the first time this month, taking the helm for Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar)—the first opera by a woman to have been performed at this house since 1903. Female conductors at the house have also been few and far between. Mälkki responds to the prospect as any conductor might, regardless of gender. “I’m really pleased,” she says. “I’ve heard this orchestra many times since 1998, when I was in New York for the first time. It’s an amazing orchestra and an amazing opera house with the greatest history. I feel honored to work there.”

Her path to the top has not been altogether straightforward, due to an ingrained, knee-jerk prejudice against female conductors in many parts of the music industry. In the past, she says, she has met with both encouragement and discouragement, sometimes simultaneously. “Thomas Adès came to Helsinki in 1999 when I conducted his opera Powder HerFace at the Helsinki Musica Nova Festival,” she says. “He loved it, so he invited me to the U.K., where I met my agent. And yet, at the same time I was experiencing quite lot of resistance.” This is a typical understatement. “It’s interesting,” she says with a shrug, “but that was almost twenty years ago. It is wonderful to see how different things are today.”

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Mälkki in action at her New York Philharmonic debut, 2015
© Chris Lee

WITH CONSCIOUSNESS about the situation of women conductors expanding, and creative initiatives springing up around the world to combat the inequality, observers might conclude that the battle is almost won. This is not entirely the case. “I think the biggest change actually is on the public side,” says Mälkki. “I’ve met a lot of musicians who have been totally fine about a woman conducting, but it’s taken such a long time for the business to catch up with it—and also the press. And I think those two have been the slowest to react, because they may have been wanting to cherish old images of—well, you know what I’m referring to!” Indeed—the grand maestros of the past, those controlling, all-powerful alpha-males. 

Even so, the role’s challenges in reality have nothing to do with gender. “I think conducting is a 360 degrees kind of work, because there are so many different responsibilities,” Mälkki says. “It’s a job where you should be everything to everybody. People have so many different expectations, and these can be sometimes really disconnected from the music at hand. I think the pragmatic side and the pragmatic training for it—keeping one’s feet on the ground and concentrating on the music—has definitely helped me, and little by little I’ve developed my way to deal with the rest.

“In terms of music-making, what I find interesting to see in retrospect is that working with living composers has always been such a central, essential and natural part of my work as a conductor—and that’s going back to the basics. That’s what this profession is about. Therefore I’ve been following the other discussion feeling sometimes frustrated and sometimes amused, because I’ve been happy to be working on the real issues with real substance all the time—and contemporary composers have been extremely happy with what I’ve been doing.”

So have her colleagues on the concert platform. Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein was the soloist at Mälkki’s New York Philharmonic debut in May 2015 and joined her again to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Helsinki Philharmonic in September. “Susanna combines the deep roots of the traditional repertoire in the Classical and Romantic periods with her extensive experience and discipline in contemporary music,” he says. “I found it refreshing that she looks at the Romantic repertoire with knowledge and affection, but without the frivolous clichés that we’re sometimes accustomed to find in it. She has a clear-eyed approach that can be emotional without being sentimental.”

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© Chris Lee

MÄLKKI IS SOMETIMES referred to as a contemporary-music specialist; maybe this impression is inevitable after her years with the Ensemble InterContemporain, from 2006 to 2013. (She was the first woman to be the ensemble’s music director.) But Gerstein thinks that label could be limiting. “In the best sense, she isn’t a specialist,” he says, “because some specialists don’t then translate into the rest of the repertoire. I don’t think modern music should be advertised as an emergency area, and older music shouldn’t be advertised as old music. Music comes from different times and places. Susanna has a broad feeling for and experience of that. She is, I think, someone who has considered exactly what a conductor ought to do—projecting authority, but in an organic way, and concentrating on the substance of the work, rather than the outer trappings and the power games. I find that sympathetic.”

The critics have been happy, too. Reviewing her New York Philharmonic debut with Gerstein, a program that matched Brahms with Jonathan Harvey, Martin Bernheimer wrote in the Financial Times, “Gratifyingly, the new sounded provocative, and the old sounded almost new.” Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the SF Gate reported, “Mälkki’s presence on the podium ensured an overall level of unanimity and balance, with big, shapely orchestral textures and crisp but fluid rhythms.”

Finland’s thriving new-music scene has been a focus for Mälkki—as well as a powerful influence; Saariaho in particular is a composer with whom Mälkki has long been associated, and whom she knows well both personally and artistically. Since its premiere in Salzburg in 2000,  L’Amour de Loin has become one of the most successful operas of its day, performed in thirteen countries; the Met’s decision to stage it represents a sizeable vote of confidence. Mälkki’s involvement, as the opera’s most frequent conductor, will be crucial to making it work for New York.

Mälkki’s acquaintance with Saariaho goes back to her musical roots as a cellist. Born in Helsinki, the daughter of two avid music-lovers, Mälkki was twenty-five when she won the Turku National Cello Competition. The obligatory contemporary-music piece for that competition was Saariaho’s Petals. “That was my introduction to her music,” Mälkki says, “and actually I won the prize for the best interpretation of the piece, which was maybe some kind of omen.” Although she took first prize in the competition and was subsequently appointed principal cellist of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the opportunity to study conducting under the Finnish pedagogue Jorma Panula eventually proved too strong a pull; baton won over bow, and now her experience as an orchestra player stands her in excellent stead on the podium.

Mälkki considers L’Amour de Loin “one of the great operas of our time.” Its story is based on La Vida Breve, by the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, the libretto adapted for Saariaho’s opera by French–Lebanese author Amin Maalouf; it considers the obsessive longing for an idealized love from far away—a theme that remains as pertinent to human beings today as it was nine centuries ago. 

“With great operas you have the perfect mix—the right text finds the right music, and those two elements feed each other,” she says, “and a great libretto inspires a composer to write something very special, which is obviously the case with this one. The story is timeless, yet very human too. It’s medieval, old-fashioned in a way, yet the timelessness in stories means that it’s something to which everybody can relate.”

The work’s technical demands are considerable. “Saariaho’s  writing is very good and very clear. There are no ‘problems’ to solve,” says Mälkki. “In collaboration with the singers, you have to make sure the balance is right, and that the orchestral textures breathe too, just as naturally as the singers do. Since the orchestration is so rich, it’s important to find transparency to it, and that is very much in the hands and ears of the conductor. We have to find the right character and see the bigger picture of the musical gesture behind the notes. For instance, when Jaufré crosses the sea, the way the music evokes these big waves has to be found together with the musicians, so that the gestures are right. These things may sound simple, but I think it’s important to be conscious of that kind of expression. 

“[Saariaho’s] music is very active and vibrant, at the same time as it can appear static,” she adds. “It shimmers, and I think that’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the little details—the shifting colors, for instance in the strings when they go from the bridge to the fingerboard and back. These things have to be done very carefully, because they also have a musical expression. They are not only effects but bring a different kind of light and energy to the music. 

“I think it’s important that the meaning is clear to the orchestra. It’s never just about effects—instead, those effects are a tool for emotional expression. In contemporary repertoire there’s an endless combination of new sounds, and every new mind creates its own. It’s fascinating.” spacer 

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist based in London.  Her output includes biographies, novels and plays. She is a frequent contributor to The Independent and BBC Radio 3. 

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